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Best of the Blogs: Mammoth's Backyard Farm Service

Grow-your-own is great, but not all of us have the time. What if we re-purposed the lawn service industry to tend a distributed backyard farm network?

One of the ways I'm looking to expand the variety of voices and ideas on GOOD's Food hub is by finding and getting permission to republish some of the best writing on food and agriculture from around the web. One site I anticipate returning to on a regular basis is mammoth, a blog written by Stephen Becker and Rob Holmes that takes as its beat landscape design, architecture, infrastructure, extinct megafauna, and the fascinating places and projects where those topics converge. By way of introduction, check out this recent and amazing post on a proposal to re-purpose the lawn service industry in order to set up a distributed backyard farm network.

Backyard Farm Service
by Rob Holmes, mammoth

One of the unfortunate things that happens with competitions is that the best entries are often overlooked by the judges, and the ideas encapsulated in those entries then missed. There are notable exceptions to this rule, like the OMA entry to the Parc de la Villette competition, or the Tschumi design for Downsview Park, but I think it's fair to say that it’s a rule. (While this is at times a failure of judging, I suspect it is also equally likely to be a function of the extreme difficulty of figuring out what schemes will prove prescient without the advantage of hindsight.)

So while there were a variety of interesting entrants to (and winners of) the recent One Prize "Mowing to Growing" competition, it isn't particularly surprising that an entry mammoth finds at least as interesting as any of the winners, Visual Logic's "Backyard Farm Service," failed to make the final cut of winners and finalists.

The "Mowing to Growing" competition (which is, at least theoretically, only the first in a series of annual competitions on the theme of urban agriculture) prompted entrants to "devise workable means for growing more of America's food closer to more of America's communities, and to do so at less expense to our economy and our environment." This theme, of course, is rather broad, and so the entries ranged from levee-farms and agriculturized-highway embankments to the predictable vertical farms or (unpredictably) the Waterpod.

The Visual Logic team (Aron Chang, Bradley Cantrell, Natalie Yates, and Patrick Michaels) start in a relatively ordinary place: noting that, while the American food delivery system is constructed by the logistical logic of "points and lines of [delivery] infrastructure" instead of a holistic consideration that would include ecological demands and opportunities—"regional climates," "soils," "aquatic resources," the presence and availability of "biological nutrients and organic matter"—the United States does already produce the vast majority of the foods it consumes. This suggests to Visual Logic that "though the US may be incapable of supplying its fossil fuel needs, the country should soon be able to rely almost entirely upon American soils for the farming of the fruits and vegetables consumed by its residents."

Where "Backyard Farm Service" begins to diverge from the ordinary, though, is when it starts to sketch one branch of a solution by mapping the vast reach of the professional landscaping industry: in the United States, Visual Logic says, there are nearly a million landscapers, maintaining the lawns of over thirty-four million Americans.

Why does the professional provision of lawn care matter in the discussion of the productive capacity of residential lawns?

In contrast to the monolithic forms of agricultural production which dominate the public consciousness, lawn-service providers constitute an under-appreciated mode of "farming" in America, one in which the farmer goes directly to the customer, in which the act of farming is fully integrated into the rhythms of everyday life, in which the highly specific predilections and site conditions of each customer and their yard trump the dictates of industrial efficiency, and in which the convenience of the customer and the cultural value of a well-maintained landscape outweighs the productive value and ecological benefits of the farming practice. The demand for lawn care continues to rise with the continued construction of single-family homes in innumerable suburban developments. With readily available cheap labor and a relatively modest investment in equipment as the only requirements for entry into the field, the lawn-service industry now comprises a diverse multitude of overlapping networks of providers and customers spanning the entire country with its myriad climatic zones and geographic regions.

Thus, there already exists a system of decentralized farming with local providers attuned to the micro-climates and conditions of their respective service areas, one that relies upon a highly mobile infrastructure of trucks and portable equipment to farm grass and maintain yards for millions of Americans. The key to the productivity of America's residential landscapes lies then, not with the homeowner who more often than not has neither the time nor interest for gardening, but in tapping the remarkable potential of the existing lawn-service industry.

Our proposal begins with two assumptions. The first is that there is an increasing demand amongst consumers for fresh and locally-grown produce, for healthier foods, and for more sustainable lifestyles. The second is that people who want to garden, have the know-how, and who have the time to garden already do garden. The lawn-service industry serves as a model for how the farming of produce can become integral to the lifestyle of American families, without necessitating an investment on the part of the homeowner in farming equipment, time, or agricultural education. Instead, networks of local urban farmers, acting much as lawn-service professionals already do, will provide farming as a service to individual clients.

[...] The reframing of the lawn-service industry forms the basis of our proposal. We ask not that every American tear up their lawns—an untenable proposition in the present day and foreseeable future—but that every homeowner is offered the means to become local food producers without requiring them to abandon their jobs and take up farming on their own. Our strategies can be implemented anywhere homeowners and yards exist, while relying on local knowledge and farmer-to-household relationships.

Though modest in terms of technical requirements or shifts in policy, "Backyard Farm Service" builds on existing business models, infrastructural capabilities, and current trends in cultural values and consumer desires to suggest how we can diversify and localize food production in order to enhance each neighborhood’s ecological diversity and food security, to physically reintegrate agricultural production into the fabric of our cities and suburbs, and to bridge the psychic gap between farming and everyday consumption that has formed over the last century with the advent of modern agriculture.


This re-purposed lawn service industry would not be deployed just as a replacement for currently existing models of local food delivery to individual homeowners—farmer's markets, CSAs—but would also hybridize that function (every homeowner employing the Backyard Farm Service would indeed receive produce from their yard) with a larger scale of economic logic, as the Backyard Farm Service would also sell produce grown on private lawns to local "restaurants, grocery stores, farmers markets, caterers, and schools." It is thus not only a proposal for hyper-localizing food production, but also for distributed farming.

That is truly post-industrial urban agriculture—not occurring after industry in time (after the decline of urban industries) and space (after the abandonment of industrial plots), but post-industrial in method, technique, and logistics. A system which was once held together by spatial and temporal logic would now be sustained by the capacity to coordinate, track, and know.

To demonstrate the potential of this approach, Visual Logic has produced an impressively deep study (partially pictured here) of how the system might unfold at a multitude of scales—mapping a single crew's route on one Friday through New Orleans, mapping the overlay of a number of routes in that same area of New Orleans, studying the costs and economic value of the service, charting the relationships between ornamentals, vegetables, and fruits for determining a typical planting palette (which would be refined to the tastes of each homeowner and local conditions), and tracking how the service might expand from a single local network in 2010 to regional networks and nation-wide impact by 2025.

The spatial idea here is not terribly new. Essentially, it is present in the premise of the competition brief. Lawns ("mowing") can be edible gardens ("growing"). But as a proposal for how you get from thinking that it would be great if lots of unproductive lawns were turned into productive gardens to a providing a reasonable mechanism by which to accomplish that transformation, Backyard Farm Service is rather valuable.

The thing that makes it valuable is that it looks at altering practices rather than objects. Doing so, of course, alters objects too—as objects and practices necessarily interact and alter one another—but the point of entry into that feedback loop matters. Why? In this case, it is because the point of entry is essentially a landscape business plan. A business plan is self-funding; a traditional architectural proposal requires a client or a patron. (Hence, the belief that "architects… design buildings for wealthy people.") While there is nothing necessarily wrong with having clients and patrons, phrasing proposals in terms of business plans with calculated spatial and programmatic effects massively expands the potential agency of the architect or landscape architect.

1. I think it is quite reasonable to say that Free Association Design's current experiment with goat-based maintenance regimes in southeast Portland is another (fine) example of practicing landscape architecture through a business plan. (In that case, through the effort of convincing a property owner and a service provider that they could have a mutually beneficial business relationship.)

2. Of the other entrants to "Mowing to Growing," I am particularly fond of "Growing the Hydro Fields," a scheme developed by University of Toronto students and covered here by InfraNet Lab.

Images: From Visual Logic's Backyard Farm Service proposal, which you can see in full (with much larger versions of these maps and diagrams) online here.

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